'The River' Review: Get 'Lost' in ABC's New Jungle Tale

ABC may struggle with cop shows and sitcoms, but give the Alphabet Net its due when it comes to paranormal jungle adventures, from “Lost” to the Vincent Price cameo on the “Brady Bunch’s” Hawaii adventure.

Its newest offering, “The River,” made a surprisingly fun two-part debut last week, with a swamp full of scary squishy jungle creatures, creepy-eyed baby dolls and high-speed zombie spirit things. The show continues its eight-episode run at 9 p.m. EST tonight.

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The show focuses on the family and former crew of wildlife expert and explorer Dr. Emmet Cole, who hosted a 22-year run of the mythical reality/nature show “The Undiscovered Country.” The program featured Cole toting his family along on a slew of adventures on his ship, The Magus. Imagine Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin and a Jacques Cousteau special combined with “The Truman Show.”

Cole (Bruce Greenwood, who played Pike in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek”) disappears on an Amazon adventure. Six months later, he’s declared dead. “The River” begins as his rescue beacon suddenly goes off, prompting Cole’s widow, Tess (Leslie Hope, from another ABC jungle series, “Off the Map”) to launch a renewed search, trailed of course by a production crew making a reality show out of the whole affair. The producers will only fund the venture if Tess is joined by Cole’s surly, estranged son Lincoln (Joe Anderson, fresh from being eaten by wolves in “The Grey”), so he reluctantly agrees to help his mother.

There are the appropriate additions to make up an expedition party with enough characters to get gored, possessed, bitten, abducted etc. as needed: the ship’s mechanic and his creeped-out daughter, the sexy daughter of a missing cameraman, and the hard-bitten security expert with the vague foreign accent who makes an alpha-male move by throwing a crewman into the Amazon. It isn’t clear if they ever go back for the guy. Which was weird.

But everything about the trip is weird, and it turns out maybe the old doc meant something else when he shouted his ubiquitous catch-phrase, “There’s magic out there.” Hmm, was he really looking for actual magic all those years?

There’s something else weird about this uncharted jungle: there are no mosquitoes. Come to think of it, there are never mosquitoes in ABC jungle shows, not in “Lost,” not in “Off the Map,” not even in “Invasion,” which was set in Florida’s Everglades, a wildlife sanctuary dedicated to preservation of the mosquito.

But with a few willing suspension of disbeliefs, “The River” is highly entertaining and visually interesting. The Amazon scenes are appropriately lush, the documentary style camera work is used sparingly and to good effect, and the story engages viewers quickly. It remains to be seen if “The River” can stretch its premise long enough to go beyond an eight-episode mid-season test run. How long can these people search for the same missing doctor without either finding him or giving up? Even “Lost” lost its way when creators lost track of all the mysteries they had planted.

“The River” has enjoyed decent reviews, but early ratings aren’t enough to merit this big-budget production, which is a shame. When the cheap stuff (reality/game shows and the same old sitcoms) does enough to fill the schedule and pimp the advertising, then that’s all the networks will deliver.

Viewers would be wise to try something different once in a while, or they can look forward to “Dancing With the Stars of Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition.”

For those who missed the premiere episodes, they are available free on ABC.com and Hulu.com. For viewers who want something more challenging than dim sitcom “Suburgatory” and less incomprehensible than “American Horror Story,” it might fit the bill.